At its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Mountains May Depart, the latest film from Chinese Sixth Generation figurehead Jia Zhangke, was perhaps most noted for two somewhat striking creative decisions: the film opening on a charmingly goofy dance number to Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West,” and the title card only appearing suddenly and prominently more than a third of the way through the film’s two-hour run. Both small details, but ones that reflects well the bombastic, sometimes inexplicable vision Jia had for this film, one at once quite in line with the politically-charged Films About China that Jia made his name with but also continuing the departure from his previously understated style that started with his other most recent film, A Touch of Sin. Mountains May Depart is in fact a film that nearly buckles under its own embellishments, even while the story at its center is mostly as poignant and relevant as any of Jia’s previous scripts.
Mountains is divided into three sections, though ultimately it’s more like two. The first two-thirds of the film concern a Shanxi-set love triangle between the beautiful Tao (played by Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife and muse), the blue-collar, affable Liangzi, and the arrogant nouveau-riche Jinsheng. This romance plays out in two stages: first in 1999, where Liangzi and Jinsheng butt heads over Tao, who ultimately chooses Jinsheng, and second in 2014, when a cancer-diagnosed Liangzi returns home to seek financial support and reunite with a now-divorced Tao, who is herself struggling to connect with her son, who spends most of his time near his father in Shanghai. This section, with its easily-paced personal drama and commentary on China’s rapid Westernization and capitalization, isn’t too far off from a lot of Jia’s earlier work – just a bit more on the nose with its symbolic shorthand and a bit more emotionally charged, verging into melodrama in a few scenes.
The third act is where the film jumps the shark a bit – we cut forward to Australia in 2025, where Jinsheng, hiding from the Chinese authorities, and his son (named, incredibly, Dollar) maintain a delicate relationship, strained by not only the usual father-son angst but also Dollar’s total removal from his father’s cultural context – he has all but forgotten Chinese, and must communicate with Jinsheng using Google Translate. Dollar rebels against his father, growing closer to his Chinese teacher (Sylvia Chang, in a puzzling cameo) and finding himself yearning for Tao, who he hasn’t seen in a decade. Even besides just being a bit more out-there than the rest of the film thanks to some moderate sci-fi trappings, this section is all the more bizarre for being largely in English, which leads to some truly distracting line readings that suggest a bit of tonedeafness with the language (Dollar at one point accuses Jinsheng, “I am not your son, Google Translate is your son!”). It’s an odd combination that makes it seem as if a new film altogether has started without telling the audience.
Of course, Mountains has its fair share of striking scenes, particularly in the earlier sections, and Jia’s newfound stylistic abandon does pay off on occasion (both the musical number and the delayed title card mentioned before are actually quite satisfying), but the film gets a bit hamstrung by its lack of cohesion and overabundance of unpredictable flourishes. Strange one-off scenes, like an early one where Tao witnesses a sudden, violent plane crash we never hear about again, seem like they’re supposed to be somehow affecting but instead just muddy what should be a fairly straightforward story – a problem which is only exacerbated by the film’s triple-threat of unsatisfying non-conclusions to its main narratives (does Liangzi pay for his surgery? Does Dollar find his mother again? What happens to Tao, anyway?). This latest film shows an interesting new direction for Jia, perhaps, but it will likely go down as one of his most vexing films, and probably not one of his best.
Mountains May Depart opens in UK cinemas 15th December 2017